When a Middle East crisis erupts, it can be hard to think long term. But Robert Malley sees larger, longer-running dangers in the region, which today is a place of crisscrossing trip wires and alliances where a miscalculation by any actor—for instance, Iran expanding its nuclear program past the United States’s or Israel’s “unidentified tolerance levels,” or a Houthi rebel from Yemen killing an American soldier—could touch off a retaliatory spiral.
Malley is something of a crisis connoisseur. Now the president of the International Crisis Group, an NGO founded in 1995 to study global flash points and propose ways to defuse them, he worked on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for President Bill Clinton. He served as a senior Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama with a variety of crisis-ridden Middle East portfolios, including the counter-ISIS campaign.
Things have gone downhill since then for reasons beyond the blowups and policy swerves associated with President Donald Trump, Malley says. In today’s Middle East, he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, the classic Tip O’Neill maxim, “All politics is local,” is turned on its head to “All politics—especially local politics—is international.” Malley speaks with Moment about the effect of the current volatility on America’s allies, including Israel, and how to reduce the chances of a crisis nobody wants.
You’ve written that “the conditions for an all-out war in the Middle East are riper than at any time in recent memory.” Why?
Everything in the Middle East is related to everything else, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to contain a crisis in one place. Borders are porous, ideologies transcend boundaries, weapons flow. If Iran feels besieged economically—as it now does—it could take action in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Gaza. If Israel felt threatened, it could act in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or the Gulf. What makes this more dangerous is that the region is also very polarized. Right now there are three main rifts: Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia and its allies; Israel vs. Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah and Hamas; and the Sunni vs. Sunni conflict with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. The combination means the tinder is very dry. Any action anywhere could lead to conflagration everywhere.
How much of this instability flows from current American policy, and how much has been gradually building up?
Obama didn’t leave a legacy of great stability in the Middle East. Things were getting worse, but slowly; there wasn’t this fear of immediate conflagration. But the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, its economic pressure campaign on Iran, and Iran feeling under siege and needing to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, whether by attacking tankers or the Saudi Arabian oil fields—all these have obviously made things worse. Having Trump in the White House has also emboldened anti-Iranian actors, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who may feel they have an opportunity to take definitive action against Iran because the president’s attitude toward Iran is closer to theirs. They were always frustrated with Obama. But they also see Trump may not be there much longer, and thus may feel some urgency to take action.
Have there been near misses?
The presumed Iranian attack on Aramco a couple of months ago could have had a very serious outcome. If the United States had retaliated, Iran might have struck our allies somewhere else, sparking a bigger counter-response. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. On the other hand, once the United States decided not to retaliate—by all accounts, with Trump going against the advice of most of his national security team—Saudi Arabia and other countries have plainly started to wonder if they can count on the United States to come to their rescue in a crisis. They may hedge their bets by coming to some accommodation with Iran.
What’s the effect on Israel?
Right now, Iran’s presence in the region, its development of precision-guided missiles, its technology transfer of that development to its allies, and the fact that it was apparently able to strike the oil field—all that raises the alarm level in Israel. At the same time, Israelis see that nobody has reacted to Iran’s attack, and that other countries are reaching out to Iran. If you’re sitting in Israel, that’s not a good dynamic. Faced with proof of Iran’s greater ability and lesser fear of retaliation, Israel needs to decide whether to take action or wait. It’s an added element of peril and uncertainty. A lot will depend on whether Netanyahu is replaced and by whom. Netanyahu has been relatively cautious when it comes to waging war, though we know that at one point he was close to attacking Iran.
Does the withdrawal from Syria change anything?
It was inevitable that at some point the United States was going to withdraw from Syria. But the way it was done, without preparation, is more likely to lead to a domino effect. The attempts by both the Obama administration and now the Trump administration to say that the U.S. role in Syria was contained, that we weren’t trying to topple the regime, ended up being in vain. Everything is interconnected; we can’t “just” intervene against ISIS. We can’t be in Syria and run no risk of affecting Iraq or Turkey. So a decision that on its face could have seemed pretty minor—moving a few Americans away from the area where they were protecting the Kurds—had massive outside repercussions and brought Russia in. We are captive in the region whether we want to be in it or not.